Kate Chopin: The Story of An Hour
Kate Chopin

Feminist Literature - Study Guide

Modern Feminist Literature is a genre that's not just for and about women. We offer a suggested framework for teachers and students to better understand its origins, and identify exemplary works by authors who explore themes of gender and identity.

Overview of Feminist Literature, Exemplary Works, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Overview of Feminist Literature

In the broadest terms, "Feminist Literature" is the expression of the philosophy of feminism: that women are equal to men. But it's much more complicated, particularly for women, who may express contempt for other women who may not agree with their interpretation of balancing "feminist" and "feminine." Summed up best by the "mother of feminism," Mary Wollstonecraft's prescient observation in 1792:

"My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable ot stand alone."
-- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

The definitions of Feminist Literature are far-ranging, so we offer more questions than answers. Which authors and works qualify? Can only women be feminists, or are males considered? Do feminists have to hate men or attempt to "get even" by suppressing them? Is it adequate to define the genre as women authors who give voice to their inner struggles, feeling forced to maintain outward appearances, when they would rather satisfy their own needs and wants? Does Feminist Literature have to be "provocative" "controversial" "shocking" "non-judgemental" "unconventional" and "anti-men"? Is it enough for its authors to write great stories featuring strong characters who grip our hearts and minds (and might make us laugh)? Do they have to involve an interesting female twist on a traditional male archetype? Case in point: Luella Miller is a female vampire who inflicts her victims with stifling feminine traits such as dependency and helplessness, also a great example of Gothic Literature.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening
The Awakening

Back to definitions. "Feminism" is a broad collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies. Its meaning and expression have changed over time. Being a feminist is truly self-defining-- women choose to embrace its practice in their own lives, and may serve as inspiration for others to follow. Generally, its mission is to counter, resist, and eventually eliminate the traditions of a male-dominated society, in favor of equality for all. "Feminist literature" gave these movements voice, and also advocated for women writers being accepted as legitimate sources of creative expression (it was common for many 19th century female authors to assume male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously).

When did feminist literature become "modern"? Some scholars set the date as works published during or after the 1960s (Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et al), while others credit Kate Chopin's The Story of An Hour (1894) for kicking-off the "modern" genre. We concur with the latter. For more insights on this story, we offer The Story of An Hour Study Guide.

Women have always conveyed their philosophies through literary expressions, but with fluctuating levels of influence. A contemporary advocacy organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (SeeJane.org) aims to empower women to influence, create, be seen and heard (both in front of and behind the camera), and create positive role models for girls. Have we evolved to the point where we no longer label contemporary work as "Feminist Literature"? Focus on skilled storytelling by authors who deliver interesting, flawed characters, evolving on a road to find their own happiness? While we're at it, perhaps we ditch "literature" in favor of "media."

Note: This introduction to the genre of Modern Feminist Literature is by no means complete. We offer it for our readers' enjoyment to highlight outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction featured at American Literature. Please use the many Useful Links, Quotes, and Discussion Questions to pursue your interest further.

We found this chronological List of Feminist Literature, spanning the 15th to 21st century, very interesting. You decide whether all the works fit the genre and how it's evolved over time!

Modern Feminist Literature: The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper

Exemplary Works

The Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin. This provocative story may have kicked-off "modern" feminist lit. Here's The Story of An Hour - Study Guide

The Awakening, also by Kate Chopin about a woman's discovery of her own sexual needs and desire for independence, caused Chopin to be ostracized and question her confidence as a writer, shortly after it was published in 1899. (Fortunate for us, she went on to create an incredible canon of masterful short stories).

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, considered the "mother of feminism" argues in her famous work published in 1792 that women are not inferior to men by nature, but lack education. Reason should be the basis of social order to achieve equality.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a powerful call to change the public's perception about women's rights to make decisions about their own health and medical treatment. She offers a fascinating account of the work's impact in Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper. You may also enjoy reading her collection of Suffrage Songs and Verses.

The Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Convention, New York (1848) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton articulated the many grievances against women, galvanizing the women's suffrage movement calling for equal rights of women.

Virginia Woof: A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own

A Trip to Cuba by Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist, poet, and travel writer, best remembered for penning the Union's most popular song during the American Civil War, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, traveled independently to mysterious places of the time, such as Cuba in 1860, opening the eyes of many Americans in her bold observations about the complexities of slavery, communism, and revolution, at a time when her own country was on the brink of civil war. The book remained banished in Cuba for years as "dangerous and incendiary material."

A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, an account of a woman challenging social conventions by embracing her own happiness as a single woman.

Virginia Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own (1929) is not yet in the public domain, but we share a summary, considered one of the most influential works of feminist literature. Among many topics including access to education, the four Marys, lesbianism, and women's writing, Woolf discusses the sharp contrast between how women are idealized in fiction written by men versus how they are treated in real life.

Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte (published under the pseudonym, Currier Bell) is widely considered a "feminist manifesto."

Feminist Literature: Women's Suffrage Movement, Yonkers, 1913
New York Fair, Yonkers, 1913

Historical Context

Feminist literature, both fiction and non-fiction, supports feminist goals for the equal rights of women in their economic, social, civic, and political status relative to men. Literature dealing with the alientation of women living in a patriarchal society dates back to the 15th century with The Tale of Joan of Arc by Christine de Pisan, followed in the 18th century by Mary Wollstonecraft. The field started getting crowded early in the 19th century: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Margaret Fuller (who wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, considered the first major American feminist work), Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Perkins Gilman, who advocated for women's health rights. Ida Tarbell pioneered investigative journalism, helped dissolve Standard Oil, and wrote The Business of Being a Woman.

Kate Chopin's best known novel, The Awakening (1899) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun (1891) led the emerging modern feminist literary movement into the 20th century, during which women earned the right to vote, fought for economic, social, political, educational, and reproductive rights and led to the 1960s and 70s Women's Liberation Movement, led by such authors as with Gloria Steinem.

The 21st century brought women screenwriters and directors, such as Nora Ephron's (When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle), Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and in 2017, a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale with a new streaming video series. The Women's March After President Trump's Inauguration (2017) drew more than a million protesters in cities throughout America and the world.

It's helpful to know the list of grievances and demands a group of activitists (mostly women) published in The Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. Principal author and first women's conference organizer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with high-profile support from abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many more struggles and attempts to change public opinion followed the conference; it took 72 more years for women to secure the right to vote. Feminism, and the literature which gives it voice, have evolved over time in meaning, intent, and expression across multiple arenas: political, moral, and social, in what's been classified as three "waves." What is the meaning of "Feminism"?

Feminist Literature: Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Declaration of Sentiments
The Declaration of Sentiments


Explain the significance of the following quotes in the context of feminist literature:

Modern Feminist Literature: Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte

Discussion Questions

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

Teacher Resources
A Teacher's Work Is Never Done

Notes/Teacher Comments

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